Saints 2023 free agency tracker: NO adds QB Carr, RB Williams

Stephen A. is not impressed with the Saints signing Derek Carr (2:22)

Stephen A. Smith says Derek Carr, who agreed to a deal with the New Orleans Saints, has yet to show he is worth the hype. (2:22)

NEW ORLEANS -- NFL free agency is off and running, and we're keeping track of every major signing, trade and release of the offseason, with the analysis from our NFL Nation reporters and grades from our experts. The New Orleans Saints were the first team to make major wave when they agreed to terms with former Las Vegas Raiders quarterback Derek Carr before the new league year started last Wednesday and free agent signings could be made official.

The move allowed the Saints get their quarterback well ahead of the 2023 NFL draft on April 27, where they now have a first-round pick after trading the rights to former coach Sean Payton to the Denver Broncos this offseason, and they will have an elite wide receiver to pair with Carr in Michael Thomas. Thomas restructured his contract for a second time this offseason, a move that was made to keep him in New Orleans for at least one more year.

While many teams are working to sign free agents the Saints have been trying to retain their own. On Saturday, the Saints re-signed tight end Juwan Johnson to a two-year deal -- giving Carr a valuable option, as Johnson led the team in touchdown receptions last season. The Saints also restructured quarterback Jameis Winston's deal Monday to keep him in New Orleans on a more cap-friendly contract as a viable backup. The team also re-signed linebacker Ty Summers to a one-year deal on Wednesday and punter Blake Gillikin on Thursday.

On Wednesday, the Saints didn't waste any time in adding back-to-back defensive tackles Khalen Saunders and Nathan Shepard to their roster. A move they needed to make after losing defensive linemen Shy Tuttle and David Onyemata to free agency. They also added the Detroit Lions' leading rusher, running back Jamaal Williams into the mix after Mark Ingram became a free agent on Wednesday. On Thursday, they signed offensive tackle Storm Norton to a one-year deal.

Here is where we will have a breakdown of every 2023 NFL free agent signing by the Saints, and how each will impact the upcoming season

Derek Carr, QB

The team announced on Saturday that it had signed him to a new two-year deal.

What it means: The Saints likely become the front-runners in the NFC South. New Orleans has struggled on offense since quarterback Drew Brees retired after the 2020 season and has made several attempts to find a replacement, going after Deshaun Watson last year and playing Taysom Hill, Andy Dalton and Jameis Winston, among others. This gives the Saints their starter for several years and allows them to focus on adding offensive weapons.

What's the risk: The money is the big factor here. The Saints will likely need to give Carr a hefty signing bonus to spread out his cap hit over several seasons. That means significant financial fallout if the Saints cut him early into his new contract. The Saints just got Brees' salary off the books this offseason. They carried $11.1 million in dead money charges in both the 2021 and 2022 seasons after his retirement because of the remaining portion of the signing bonus given to him after his extension in 2020.

Jamaal Williams, RB

The Saints and Williams agreed to a three-year deal worth $12 million, including $8 million fully guaranteed.

What it means: This was a high priority position to fill for the Saints, with Ingram becoming a free agent and the uncertainty surrounding Alvin Kamara's playing status with a possible suspension looming. The Saints haven't had a solid duo in the backfield since Kamara was paired with Latavius Murray in 2020, so it makes sense the team would go looking for someone early instead of relying on the undrafted free agent pool.

What's the risk: $8 million guaranteed isn't a cheap investment for a team that's living on the edge with their cap space. But Williams had a huge season last year with the Lions, rushing for over 1,000 yards and leading the league with 17 rushing touchdowns. That production won't be easy to replicate, but if he gets anywhere close to that, it seems like a low-risk, high reward move for the Saints.

Juwan Johnson, TE

The Saints re-signed Johnson to a two-year deal.

What it means: The Saints have two more years to mold one of their best young players. Johnson has only been in the tight end room for two seasons after converting from wide receiver in 2021. He's grown by leaps and bounds since that year and had seven receiving touchdowns last season. With more experience, there's no telling what the ceiling is for Johnson, and given Carr's success with Raiders tight end Darren Waller, keeping Johnson could greatly benefit both players. The Saints needed to keep him to ensure some stability on their offense.

What's the risk: The Saints aren't taking any risks by keeping Johnson on what's likely a team-friendly, two-year deal. Johnson is only 26 and has shown he has a lot to offer at tight end despite his lack of experience. Johnson has played with multiple quarterbacks over the last two seasons, so getting another year to grow is only a plus for a team didn't have any major pending free agents this year.

Khalen Saunders, DT

Saunders agreed to a three-year deal.

What it means: Saunders is a massive replacement, who at 6-foot and 324 pounds will be the biggest body on the defensive line. He had 3.5 sacks last season for the Kansas City Chiefs and moves well for his size. He'll immediately slide in as part of the interior rotation and help the run defense. But the Saints will likely continue to explore options for their interior part of their line.

What's the risk: The Saints are banking on Saunders' production in his final year with the Chiefs to show that he's continuing to improve as a player. Saunders had the best stats of his career (48 tackles and 3.5 sacks in 16 games), but typically he only plays about 30 to 40% of the snaps with no starts since 2020. The Saints are clearly hoping he is a player on the rise. While Saunders brings the experience of playing in two Super Bowls, he will have to endure the Saints' growing pains as they replace long-time starters like Onyemata.

Nathan Shepherd, DT

The details of the deal haven't been disclosed at this time.

What it means: Adding Shepherd is part of their effort to overhaul a depleted defensive line. Expect to continue seeing additions through free agency and into the draft as the Saints try to fix the hole in the middle of the line. They'll like be looking for pass rushers too after the departure of Marcus Davenport. If the Saints fix this position in free agency, they might be free to take the best player available when the draft comes around.

What's the risk: It's dependent on the amount of the deal. The Saints need more players to rotate on their defensive line, and Shepherd has been part of the New York Jets' rotation for five seasons. He played 17 games in 2021 and 2022 with four combined starts. Shepherd played for a minimum deal with the Jets in 2022, taking less money to stay, according to ESPN's Rich Cimini. If the price is high, then the Saints will expect him to play a significant role, but if not, he can be a rotational piece with little risk.

Ty Summers, LB

The Saints and Summers have agreed to re-sign to a one-year deal.

What it means: The Saints signed Summers off the Jaguars practice squad on Dec. 20 and he played 55 snaps on special teams last season. The 27-year-old was a 7th round pick for the Packers in the 2019 draft and spent three seasons there as a core special teams player. He was claimed off waivers by the Jaguars after the Packers' 2022 training camp. While this isn't a big move for the defensive side of the ball, the Saints will need help on special teams if they don't re-sign some players like Andrew Dowell and Dwayne Washington.

What's the risk: None. Summers will have to prove himself again during the offseason and training camp, but if he can stick around and make a roster, it'll probably be as a special teams player. A one-year deal provides little risk and these types of contracts are likely how the Saints will continue to fill the roster after their flurry of free agency moves on March 15. Summers' chance to make the roster will likely follow the Dowell path of playing well on special teams.

Blake Gillikin, P

The terms of Gillikin's deal have not been disclosed yet.

What it means: The Saints re-signed their punter one day after they chose not to put a restricted free agent tender on him. Gillikin had to give up his old No. 4 to Carr, but will be back wearing No. 5 this year. The third-year punter is only 25 and likely has a long career ahead of him, so it makes sense for the Saints to keep him in the fold for stability.

What's the risk: Gillikin had a few rough punts last season, and some of his numbers were slightly lower than in his rookie season, but there's a reason the Saints liked him enough to part ways with long-time punter Thomas Morstead. Gillikin has a big leg, and if he has a more consistent season in 2023, this could end up being a key re-signing for New Orleans.

Storm Norton, OT

The Saints signed offensive tackle Storm Norton to a one-year deal.

What it means: Norton got his break with the XFL in 2020 after bouncing around practice squads. He spent three seasons with the Los Angeles Chargers and was their starting right tackle for one year. The 28-year-old is a depth signing at this point with several tackles ahead of him on both sides.

What's the risk: Norton started 15 games at right tackle in 2021 and allowed 13 sacks for the Chargers, according to TruMedia. He was re-signed in 2022 as an exclusive rights free agent but lost his starting job, filling in only briefly at both tackle positions. This seems like the typical low-risk signing that the Saints will be making throughout the offseason as they try to fill their roster and see who can stand out at OTAs.